A Note from the Rector – 5/17/20

Today we observe Rogation Sunday, which is always the Sunday before the Feast of the Ascension (Ascension is this Thursday, May 21st).  Rogation comes from Rogare which is the Latin verb “to ask.”  Rogation is a time to ask for God’s blessing on agriculture and the resources of creation.  It recognizes these resources as gifts from God upon which all humans rely for life.  This aspect of Rogation days has often been marked, especially in Anglicanism, by a special form of procession called “beating the bounds of the parish” in which the parish congregation led by the priest would encircle the boundaries of the parish (usually a defined neighborhood or village), stopping at points to read Scripture and pray.  Especially In rural areas, an important part of these processions was to visit and bless farmlands and agricultural operations.  

This forms a Spring bookend to traditions of Autumn harvest blessings and of offering a portion of the fruits of our labor to God in thanksgiving for God’s blessings.  The Rogation Day trip around the parish is probably the origin of the Easter home blessing tradition.  For the last several years, our version of the Rogation Day celebration has included a procession to Wynnewood Valley Park next door, where we’ve read Scripture and offered prayers and blessings over God’s good creation that is represented there. 

Rogation-tide has also been a time to ask God for protection from calamities, including the ending of plagues and protection from natural disasters.  Here, it is important to remember that the Church has weathered many a pandemic in its 2,000 years history, and much more besides.  A special form of prayer arose in response to these calamities called the Litany.  The Litany as we know it originated probably in the 5th century.  Some scholars trace both the Great Litany and the first Rogation procession to a bishop named Mamerte who lived in 5th century France and held a Rogation Day procession with a call and response type prayer to ask God’s protection during a looming disaster.  The exact nature of the disaster, interestingly, is contested.  Some contemporary sources say it was a volcano threatening to erupt, others that it was a series of calamitous earthquakes.  One source claims it was an on-going attack on the city of Vienne by a demonic pack of wolves.  Whatever the case, the Rogation procession around the town and the tradition of praying the Litany as a petition for God’s protection has long been a tool in the Church’s toolbox of prayer.  It’s sort of like that giant monkey wrench you pull out when your home plumbing project takes a serious turn and you don’t have time to mess around anymore–that’s the Great Litany.  Rogation processions and litanies were common in Europe during medieval and early modern outbreaks of the Black plague.  In 1544, the Great Litany was the first part of the Latin Liturgy to be translated (and heavily edited) into vernacular English by Thomas Cranmer.  Cranmer was in a hurry to bring his version of the ancient prayer to the public as a response to England’s devastating wars with Spain and France.  Five years later Cranmer finished the first Book of Common Prayer, which stands at the fountainhead of our own style of worship.  

All that to say, it seems especially appropriate to keep the tradition of Rogation Day this year during this pandemic.  As part of our 10AM service this Sunday, we will have a small Rogation procession led by me and my quarantine-mates (my children).  I’ll pray the Great Litany–you’ll be able to follow along at home–while the kids march along with a processional cross and Deb records the whole thing on a camcorder.  It could be a solemn moment, a bizarre spectacle, or a complete disaster.  Probably it will be a little bit of all three.  However, pleading for the renewal of all creation and asking God for protection against grave dangers and an end to our affliction–all this is not a joke, and our intentions will be in the right place.  

There is another way you can participate in the celebration of the Rogation Sunday from your own home. Below is a short Scripture reading and prayer that you can pray alone or with your quarantine-mates in your own garden.   

Rogation Sunday Garden Devotions

Leader                          Blessed be the God of all Creation

Others (if present)       The Lord, our God, makes all things new

A reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 8:19-23)

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray

Gracious God, along with all your creation we wait with eager longing.  Help us to be revealed as your children. Let us fulfill our small part in the great work of reconciling all things to you.  Let this garden be a sign of that day when creation is freed from its bondage to decay.  Bring order, growth, and tranquility to this place.  Send your blessing on this garden, on all the plants in my [our] care, and in all the creatures who visit and whose lives are sustained here as I am [we are] sustained here.  This we pray in the name of the Resurrected Lord, whom Mary Magdalene recognized as a gardener on Easter morning, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

A Note from the Rector – 3/29/20

12 days.  As of the day I am writing, that’s how many days since I last received the life-giving food of Christ’s body and blood.  It’s been a decade since I’ve gone that long without receiving the Eucharist.  I’ve seen and heard many people talk about how this is a time to realize what we have taken for granted in our lives.   For me, the Eucharist is on the top of the list.  I am sure I am not alone.  The Eucharist has come up a lot, as I’ve spoken to people from our parish in the past two of weeks.  More than one person has wondered if we could do a digital Eucharist, where each person gathers their own elements of bread and wine and I bless them remotely over the internet live-stream.  I have been moved by these conversations and the desire to participate in the great Sacrament of the Church that they express.  I love and admire you all for the strength of your faith and your hunger for the healing food of the Eucharist.  

The thing about the Eucharist is that it is inescapably physical.  The Eucharist embodies the incarnate, the en-fleshed, body of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is made present in the elements of wine and bread for the physically gathered community of the body of Jesus Christ, otherwise known as the Church…otherwise known as you.  This is a material, personal, face-to-face act of thanksgiving and sacrifice.  While the internet can do many things for us, especially in this time of crisis, it cannot simulate the immediacy and intimacy of the Eucharist.  The essential physical nature of the Eucharist is expressed in the Book of Common Prayer in the only instruction during the Eucharistic prayer for what the Celebrant (the priest) must do with their hands.  When saying the Words of Institution–“This is my body…” and “This is the blood…” the priest must touch the bread and touch the chalice.   It’s not that I have magic hands or that there’s anything special about me personally.  It is that the priest (who is standing in for the bishop, actually) represents the entire gathered assembly, offering up everything we have as a sacrifice of praise to God and receiving everything back, blessed, broken open, and dripping with God’s grace.  Good WiFi is no substitute for the real thing.  

As a priest I could celebrate the Eucharist with only another member of my family present.  But to do this for my consolation only, would be (to my conscience) a selfish act.  The intention of the heart is key here.  I do not question the motivation of priests who are celebrating the Eucharist in the absence of a congregation.  I am personally grateful that many of my colleagues have continued to pray the best prayer of the Church (the Eucharist) and to offer up the body and blood of Christ for the healing of our lost and broken world.  But for us, the vestry and I decided that we would livestream Morning Prayer instead of Eucharist as our main service for the time being.

So, we’re in a pickle.  In direct consultation with the Commonwealth’s health department, the bishop has suspended in-person worship services through the first Sunday of May.  I cannot even express how sad I am about the implications.   We cannot gather in person for Palm Sunday, or any of the services of Holy Week, or on the most important and glorious and meaningful day of the entire year—Easter Day.  Nevertheless, the bishop’s decision is the right one.  We need to stay home to save lives and to reduce the pressure on our healthcare system.  This is what loving our neighbor requires of us, and to violate that love—even for the sake of something so intrinsically good as gathering together to worship—is wrong.  

As unprecedented as all this sounds, we are not alone in this.  Our ancestors in faith dealt with similar and even more difficult circumstances.  As the fly said when he fell into the preserves…I’ve been in much worse jams than this.  The Church has lived and faithfully thrived through much worse jams than this.  It is also helpful to remember that not too long ago the norm in the Episcopal church was Morning Prayer three Sundays a month and Eucharist one Sunday a month.  In the Middle Ages, despite daily Eucharists celebrated in most churches, the average faithful Christian would only receive the Eucharist once or twice a year—perhaps only on Easter and Christmas.

The Book of Common Prayer also offers a way forward for us who so desperately want and need the Eucharist:

“If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness or physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth.”

BCP, page 457

This concept is known as Spiritual Communion.  Even though we cannot receive with our mouths, God’s grace is imparted and made present to us through the holy desire and intentions of our hearts.   We are embodied people and Spiritual Communion is no permanent substitute for the material Eucharist, but in this time, it will carry us through.  So going forward into Holy Week we will create opportunities to make Spiritual Communion and to sharpen the desires and intentions of our hearts toward union with God and each other.  And when this thing is over, and we can gather again, we are going to have one heck of a party and one heavenly Eucharistic feast together.  

Right now, do not doubt that God’s loving presence is everywhere.  God is with you right now.  God hears our cries and sees our desperate moments.  Lord, hear our prayer and let our cry come to you.  Lord make speed to save us.  God make haste to help us.  Amen.   

A Note from the Rector – 3/10/19

Today is the first Sunday of the season of Lent.  This morning we join in the prayers of the Church using a very ancient form of prayer—the Great Litany.  The Great Litany is the real deal; the big time; the major leagues of prayer.  This prayer was first assembled in response to a 4th century volcanic eruption.  It was further shaped by political uncertainty, war, and medieval outbreaks of the Black Plague in Europe.  In 1544, the Great Litany was the first part of the Liturgy to be translated (and heavily edited) into vernacular English by Thomas Cranmer.  Five years later Cranmer finished the first Book of Common Prayer, which stands at the fountainhead of our own style of worship.  Cranmer’s version of the Litany melded medieval catholic spirituality with the theological concerns of the Reformation.  Martin Luther’s hand can still be detected on the version of the Litany that is in our prayer book.

At one time, the Great Litany was prayed by every Anglican parish every Sunday.  These days, even though it is included in our version of the prayer book, it has fallen into disuse.  This is a real shame. As one scholar writes, the Litany is “a most careful, luminous, and comprehensive collection of the scattered treasures of the Universal Church.”  It holds together the reformed and catholic strands of our tradition, and it articulates the needs, anxieties, and suffering of humanity with a power that is rare.  More than that, the Litany is a profound reminder that we need to rely on the grace and mercy of God.  This is equally true today as it was in the 4th century, or the 14th.  Our life depends on God, whether we recognize it or not.  And the fact is, we often don’t recognize it.  Lent is a good time to correct that, so let’s do it with style.

This morning’s service is going to feel different.  We will begin the service by chanting together this ancient, beautiful prayer. The choir is going to march around the church really slow, and any children present might feel like joining in the march, which would be ideal as far as I am concerned.  My experience is that children intuitively understand the grandest and most sublime parts of liturgy, even if their response to them don’t always strike us adults as appropriate.  It’s going to take some time to chant the Great Litany, which is okay.  Don’t be anxious.  This is an opportunity to lose yourself in the mystery and the majesty of something bigger than you, something more important (really, it is) than the busyness and anxieties and luxuries of everyday life.  I promise it will be worth it.  I also promise to keep my sermon short.  🙂

For more on the history and use of the Great Litany see this excellent article from the Living Church magazine.

A Note from the Rector – July 1

Governance in the Episcopal church is unique.  One of its important aspects is General Convention, a once every three year gathering that serves as a bicameral legislative body for the church.  The two houses of General Convention are the House of Bishops, and the House of Delegates. The first General Convention was in 1785, two years before the formation of the U.S. Congress. William White, the first Bishop of Pennsylvania presided over the first General Convention.  The 79th General Convention convenes this year in Austin, Texas from July 5-13th.

Among the hundreds of resolutions that will be discussed and voted on this year are a several concerning the revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  There are two major options on the table. Option #1 details a 12 year process of comprehensive revision to the prayer book culminating in a vote to adopt a new Book of Common Prayer at General Convention 2030.  Option #2 calls for extensive research into how the current (1979) prayer book is actually being used, and the development of resources to help parishes better “live into” the spirituality of the current prayer book.  Option #2 also calls for translations of the current BCP into French and Haitian Creole, and for a better translation into Spanish (the current one is not very good).

There are also various proposals for “surgical changes” to the current prayer book.  One of the most noteworthy is a resolution to insert the rite for same-sex marriage into the prayer book after the current marriage rite, and to change the definition of marriage in the catechism at the back of the BCP.  The rite for same-sex marriage was approved for trial use at the 2015 General Convention, and has been used in most of the dioceses in the Episcopal Church with the express permission of the diocesan bishop. Bishops who do not allow their priests to use the same-sex marriage rite are supposed to make some provision for same-sex couples in their diocese to be married (i.e. asking another diocese to provide clergy, etc.).  Inserting the same-sex marriage rite into the current prayer book would make it uniformly available to all, and would circumvent the authority of bishops to approve or disapprove its use.

I am not going to predict how these resolutions to change the Book of Common Prayer will ultimately pan out.  I will say that I am convinced by arguments against the complete revision of the prayer book. I think it is true that most Episcopalians, including myself, have not fully internalized the deep spirituality and practice that is encoded in our prayer book.  It would behoove the Church to spend some more time opening up the riches of this truly remarkable book.  Of course, the prayer book isn’t perfect. That is one reason there are approved supplemental materials like the alternative translation of the Nicene Creed that that we have implemented at Holy Apostles every other week with Bishop Daniel’s permission.

I will try to stay abreast of what is going on in Austin, and keep you informed of developments of interest. I ask that you prayer for the Holy Spirit to guide all the delegates and bishops of our wonderful church as they convene for their important and difficult work.

If you want to browse the resolutions that will be taken up at General Convention click here.

You can also keep up with General Convention news at The Episcopal Herald.